Students with suicidal thoughts face wait times and inadequate care

Mental health care on campus has been a growing issue for students, with many saying CMHS is underfunded and that UConn isn’t doing enough to help serve the needs of its students. (File/The Daily Campus)

*Names in this story have been changed to protect anonymity.

When University of Connecticut student Kala Coates* was having suicidal thoughts, she turned to a friend who helped her reach out to Counseling and Mental Health Services for mental health care.

“My friend saw my face and asked if I wanted to kill myself,” Coates recalled. “I broke down crying so she guided me and encouraged me to call CMHS for help.”

After reaching out to CMHS, though, Coates said she was put on a waitlist.

“I made an appointment to have an intake, but it was rescheduled. During the intake I admitted to having suicidal thoughts and thought of ways to take my life but said that I wouldn’t act on them even though that wasn’t entirely true,” Coates said. “They decided my case wasn’t emergent and put me on a waitlist for a support group. However, my mom intervened before this because she was worried that the process was not moving quickly enough, so I had to drop to a part-time student and spent half my weeks at home.”

Coates isn’t alone. After student William Thompson* attempted suicide, his first instinct was to turn to CMHS for assistance.

“At the meeting, various options were thrown at me, but the therapist thought I shouldn’t return after such a serious attempt,” Thompson said. “Taking a voluntary medical leave was the final decision after being told that it was less extreme than being forcibly ‘kicked’ out of the university.”

Along with a semester off from school, Thompson’s family and CMHS decided Thompson would attend an intensive outpatient program.

“After many phone calls and negotiations, I was allowed to return to UConn on a reduced workload while also agreeing to continue my therapy there,” Thompson said.

Mental health care on campus has been a growing issue for students, with many saying CMHS is underfunded and that UConn isn’t doing enough to help serve the needs of its students.

Elizabeth Cracco, director at CMHS, said the organization is constantly changing and adapting to the campus climate.

“More than anything, we hope that students dedicated to mental health join CMHS and organizations such as Active Minds, National Alliance on Mental Illness and USG in productive dialogue where together we ask questions, examine data and pilot solutions,” Cracco said. “Together, as exemplified by things like the JED C.A.M.P.U.S. partnership with USG, we are much more powerful to create change and meet the needs of students when we sit down and talk. Connection is the heart of what we do at CMHS and the heart of all productive change.”

When asked about how many staffers are kept full time, Cracco explained that CMHS has expanded in recent years.

“CMHS has enjoyed significant administrative support in terms of expansion of staffing over the past decade. Approximately 10 years ago, the center went through a major re-visioning and expanded by five full-time staff,” Cracco said. “Since 2014, we’ve added six positions at Storrs and four at the regional campuses. In addition, we regularly hire per diem staff to add additional support and service.”

Cracco said satisfaction rates of CMHS, which they calculate based on survey responses from students who use their services, are high.

“On all fronts, including feeling respected, feeling like they would recommend CMHS to others, feeling like it is an important service and feeling as though their concerns were listened to and taken seriously, current clients rate their experience with over 90 percent satisfaction,” Cracco said.

That satisfaction, however, doesn’t seem to resonate with many. Coates said CMHS’ slow response was a threat to her safety.

“I wish they were able to see my case as more urgent… I think that the wait time for a formal intake should be decreased, as students are not often open about the severity of their issues, like I was,” Coates said. “More resources should be allotted to this branch of health services because mental health is just as important as physical health.”

Mental health care isn’t confined to CMHS. For students living in the dorms, staff there are the first responders to someone who has suicidal thoughts.

A Resident Assistant, Jason Delaney*, said a friend of his confided in him about their suicidal thoughts during a car ride. Delaney said he later called the hall director, who immediately told him to contact the police. The officers quickly arrived at the student’s dorm to question them about their suicidal ideation.

“RAs do not get nearly enough training that we need for these kinds of situations,” Delaney said. “We are often the first respondents in situations of the sort, and we received maybe a one to two hour presentation on how to handle it.”

Before each semester, all RAs are given mental health assistance training, but this is not sufficient to prepare them correctly, Delaney said.

“I basically have to wing it depending on what the context is,” Delaney said. “I believe that this is extremely unprofessional. The worst part is that if I wing it the wrong way I could be fired.”

RAs are trusted with the judgement of making the right decision in pressing situations, but when the protocol they teach is not followed, there are consequences.

“I was told that I was possibly facing termination from my position because of the situation with my friend... the ‘protocol’ that I should have followed is to ask my friend to stop the car ... and call the police,” Delaney said. “Rather than a protocol to keep students safe, this seems like a protocol to keep the school safe from lawsuits.”

Kymberly Hendricks, assistant director of residence education, said RAs follow an annual training schedule.

“RAs participate in mandatory training prior to the start of both fall and spring semesters via online and in-person sessions, as well as in-services throughout the year,” Hendricks said. “Training topics include: Suicide, blood borne pathogens, Title IX response, active threat training and various other crisis or emergency response protocols.”

Hendricks said RAs have conversations about intervention crisis often.

“Conversations regarding crisis response and intervention happen weekly during staff meetings and in scheduled one-on-one RA and supervisor meetings. Hall directors have the ability and flexibility to discuss duty and incident response/trends in the area,” Hendricks said. “This is built into the weekly staff meeting agenda under ‘community trends.’ All RAs are also required to take a three-credit course during their first year in the position.”

UConn Police are often the first people called to assist a student who is feeling unsafe. Faculty and staff are trained to call UCPD first, Cracco said.

Another student, Claire Vides*, said her boyfriend struggled with mental illness and had a history with suicidal ideation. One evening, Vides called 911 when her boyfriend was in a severe depressive episode.

“The police came and talked to us separately, and my boyfriend convinced the police that he was no danger to himself, despite me sharing his history with depression and suicide and that I believed he would try something again that night, but the police escorted him to his room and told me to let him sleep it off,” Vides said.

At first, the police officers displayed concern for the situation. But by the time the officers left, they thought he could be alone, Vides said.

“I strongly believe that the police hurt the situation. My boyfriend was intoxicated and I was not,” Vides said. “I am honestly disgusted by what occurred and it led to further problems in the months afterwards that could have been prevented had the police done a proper mental health check.”

In another incident, student Joseph Russell* called the police after their friend expressed not wanting to live.

“The police found my friend after they ran off and took him into custody and put him on suicide watch… but after two hours he was released,” Russell said.

After the student was released from custody, he ignored calls and texts from friends trying to find him and make sure he was safe, Russell said.

“It makes me question the training and the protocols surrounding similar situations,” Russell said.

Andrew Fournier, deputy chief of UCPD, said crisis intervention training has become more prioritized in recent years.

“In the last five to eight years, we started getting a lot more training for officers because crisis prevention was something we were dealing with quite a bit,” Fournier said.

In police academy, each officer is trained in crisis prevention, Fournier said, but hired officers at UConn receive additional training.

“Typically in the first three to five years of their career we send them to do another 40-hour training,” Fournier said. “The training equips them to ask the right questions when they’re on scene and to make a decision of whether or not the person needs to be evaluated immediately to prevent putting themselves or any other person in harm’s way.”

UCPD’s training is run by a group called Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement (CABLE), Fournier said.

“They provide a 40-hour, one-week training in crisis intervention and it’s typically offered about once a month each year,” Fournier said. “If we can get our officers in there within the first three years, that’s good, it just depends on class availability”.

In recent years, UCPD has seen a surge in frequency of calls they respond to regarding crisis intervention, Fournier said.

“In 2018, we received 110 calls that classify as some sort of crisis, and to give you some perspective, 2017 had 112 calls and in 2016 we received 127,” Fournier said.

Each crisis call UCPD receives is sent to UConn’s student care team, which serves to keep track of common student behaviors on campus.

“Whether a student needs to go to a hospital for evaluation or referred to CMHS, either way the call is forwarded to the university’s student care team,” Fournier said. “From there the student can receive a lot of resources and assistance through the university itself.”

UConn’s student care team and CMHS are different, but connected to aid students with mental health care, Fournier said.

“UConn’s student care team is a group of various departments around the university that receive the information and manages any person that could be a threat to themselves or anyone else and focus on self harm and suicidal ideation,” Fournier said.

When responding to a call, officers must try to keep the process as natural as possible, Fournier said.

“A lot of what we do in these situations is just having a conversation,” Fournier said. “Typically we have a little information before we arrive and we just follow up on that information and what naturally should be inquired about, there’s no checklist. It’s really about developing a rapport so the student can be open, honest and feel comfortable.”

When officers decide a student should be evaluated at a hospital, they try to make the process as calm and seamless for the student in need of help, but sometimes help is resisted.

“We typically approach these situations knowing we want the student to understand the need to be evaluated in a hospital so we have the ability under state statute to more or less require them to go to the hospital, which we call an emergency committal,” Fournier said. “That allows law enforcement to put a person under custody care of a hospital just so they can be evaluated.”

In most cases, when a student is not deemed a danger to themselves or anyone else, officers will allow them to stay in their room, Fournier said.

“Typically if it’s a situation within the residence halls, we connect with the residential life staff and we don’t divulge a lot of personal information, especially if it’s a medical type of situation, but we at least give residential life staff a heads up that the student might need some assistance in the future,” Fournier said.

Fournier and the officers at UCPD recognize that sometimes what students need are beyond their training.

“We are not psychologists and we don’t have anywhere near that level of training,” Fournier said. “But if there’s any indicator that a student should be seen by a psychologist we would certainly send them to a hospital.”

These psychologists, however, and those with the necessary training aren’t always available on campus. In August 2018, the Humphrey Clinic for Individual, Couple and Family Therapy closed its doors, cutting off mental health help for students who didn’t want their therapy fees to show up on their families’ insurance or who weren’t able to go to therapy off-campus without a car.

Students have also brought attention to CMHS and the lack of resources and funding they receive for mental health care.

A large number of other students, including some of those who shared their stories, feel similarly. In March, students held a demonstration to call for CMHS reform.

Omar Taweh, an eighth-semester senior physiology and neurobiology major, took to social media to express frustrations with CMHS conduct, which led to the demonstration.

“One of my friends was complaining to me about an issue she had with mental health,” Taweh said. “It sparked my interest and passion for mental health which lead to this demonstration.”

Taweh said he’s heard the same story of long wait times, unavailable resources and frustrated students.

“The people at CMHS program and plan all these initiatives to improve their services, and they do a good job with that,” Taweh said. “But what is so sad is that the concerns of students are rarely heard because there are no channels for that.”


Naiela Suleiman is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at naiela.suleiman@uconn.edu.